The Snail Line

We waited.

The platform was grey and beloved. Small kitsch animals peered out from crevices and windowsills. Pots of flowers showed off their glory in ship-shape fashion. A warm wind blew and the relentlessly grey sky cosseted us like an old woman with a teapot on crotcheted doilies.

This station was nothing to write home about. Yet here we stood waiting for the 2:35 from Llanfair Caereinion.

Welshpool is not a picture postcard place but a quiet and orderly sanctuary for the comfortable, and the platform reflected this, sprinkled lightly with very retired couples and the odd young father-and-son team seeking The Dream Of Steam.

The 2:35 was late, ten minutes actually, but no one seemed to mind, because this was a holiday railway, a steam railway . A railway of little dreams.

Picture a high-profile steam railway, with large roaring gleaming black engines and huge sheds full of spare stock; of Pullman dining cars and sharp intakes of breath, and dizzying scenery of unparalleled beauty.

And, if you will, ditch that picture. The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway, built in 1903, is light. To be geekily specific, it is a 2 foot six inch narrow gauge.

A whistle sounded from around the corner and everyone stirred as if from a waking dream. It was coming! Soon we would see the engine round the corner.

We waited. And nothing happened for a full 5 minutes further, if you don’t count the growing army of enthusiastic volunteer engineers beginning to congregate on the platform. Finally, finally, as we squinted, it appeared. It did not appear to be moving any closer, though by some optical illusion it drew near, a diminutive little black engine with matching steam.

And unaccountably we felt excitement, though we weren’t travelling on it.

The Celt and I had had that conversation earlier. He caught me baffled by the iPad. “The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway is eight and a half miles long,” I said slowly. “But it takes 45 minutes to do the journey”

We decided we would wait on the platform to watch it arrive, and then go and have coffee in town.

It was very, very slow, but being a steam train it retained romance. And this little train also had another string to its bow: eccentricity.

It inched deliberately into the platform where a delighted(or relieved?) crowd alighted and hurried off to cars for the next stage of their North Welsh day. We stayed, for the little train had already enchanted us with its entry and we wanted to see it fill with water from the steam tower.

As men in guard uniforms bustled to refill the little iron horse, others appeared with an equally serious endeavour: the tea tray. Soon no guard could be seen without a personalised Raven Square Station mug. Woe betide anyone who bore their mug off to Llanfair Ceireinon station by mistake.

As the engine returned to take up its burden I noted a second bright yellow modern one. And then I looked closely at the carriages which did not look Welsh.

“Excuse me,” I asked a gentleman in guard garb. “Does it really say Hungary on that carriage?”

It did, he said. £300 it costs them to run each trip full of passengers, and the little yellow chugger helps keep that cost down by adding an extra push. The Hungarian train network donated the carriages- a nearby high profile steam line helped them do them up for service. The Welshpool and Llanfair line bought the Austrian carriages themselves.

Which lends a European feel to the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway. One expects macintoshed spies and gorgeous film-star women to alight. It has strange diminutive glamour.

When the little steam train was ready to depart it was impossible not to feel about five years old, and the Celt and I hopped from one foot too the other in excitement to watch the train leave on its £300 way.

Everyone stepped on board and coal was shovelled into the furnaces and the engine drew itself up to its full height and hissed as impressively as it possibly could.

And then, zimmer-frame-leisurely, it left.

And we waved and waved and waved until it was finally, finally out of sight.


24 thoughts on “The Snail Line

  1. Cosmopolitan train travel, indeed! We love the old steam railway routes of which there are a couple in South Africa. Of course, in our youth we took journeys in them as a sensible way to travel. Two-day journeys to the Cape. Luxurious dining carriages, comfortable bunks, and ever-changing scenery.
    I wish we’d done the Welsh one. I’m sure it didn’t cost that much when we were there!

  2. I just squealed with delight, promoting the Antler Man to come into the room to check on me, then watched, himself, with equaled delight as I played your video again.What a fun post to read, Kate. There was a railroad club located in the town we used to live in. They would meet upstairs from the coffee shop many of us gathered in. We always knew when a vintage train would be passing through by the cameras and tripods and engineers’ caps. Fun.

  3. I was all smiles, and the sound of that engine chuffing out, brought back happy memories of growing, up in the age of steam; in Dagenham,Essex :twisted:!

    I once had the joyful pleasure, of riding on the footplate, and pulling the whistle, of a steam loco, it was 50 years ago in Western Australia; an experience once thrilled by, never forgotten.

    I always believed the expression to be “ship-shape and Bristol Fashion”; Has Bristol been misbehaving?

    Loved the photographs

  4. This reminded me so much of I or the Engine, both the tv series and the books, with poop-poop-poopity-poop of Ivor’s whistle echoing round the Welsh valleys. Very evocative.

  5. How delightful! My husband is a retired railroad switchman and we just love trains! The old steam engines are the most fascinating of all. There’s just something about trains that inspires enthusiasm and causes grown adults to hop around and wave. 🙂 Lovely!

      1. We do have a garden scale railroad, Kate. And it’s amazing how that little train makes children of all ages pay attention. What is it about trains! 🙂

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